Last week I went up to the URJ Eisner Camp for a day during the December Institute of NFTY-NE - the regional winter gathering of our movement's youth group. There were over 150 teens there and, in the short number of hours I spent there, I learned and I was inspired.
I arrived in time to lead a fun and noisy session - a drum circle. As I told the teens, I profess no great expertise in teaching anyone else to drum. I do have good rhythm and average drumming skills, but we happen to own a particularly large drum collection, making it possible for me to offer this to about 15 people. Of course, a group drumming session like this offers a fun and informal way to explore not only rhythmic abilities but also skills of leadership and followship. What was wonderful for me to see was that, while I came armed with a few ideas to make one round of drumming a little different from the next, leaders in the group naturally emerged ... getting us up and marching around the room (and eventually around the building), leading a call and response round, and suggesting chants to add to the few that I'd brought to give us something to drum along to.
Next, I observed a teen-written and teen-run program about labels and terms used so often in derogatory ways and the real mental or physical health issues that they relate to. It was a tough program to maintain momentum with, but I was so impressed by the seriousness and dedication of the teen leaders who led the discussion groups, and the incredibly supportive participation of the teens. Every synagogue board and committee could learn from watching these kids in action!
The highlight of the visit for me was watching Michael Kalmans, the Co-President of our Temple Youth Group, BIFTY, lead the evening prayer service that he had written. In its creativity, spirituality, social conscience and beauty it was inspiring. In so many ways it was 'outside the box' and, simultaneously, one of the most spiritual services I've been to in a very long time.
In the busy lives that our teens live, and the heavy workload of school, it is harder these days for Temple youth groups to find a place in the schedules and priorities of our kids' lives. Yet the power and importance of NFTY goes far beyond the social hang-out space that these groups provide. The values of the organization, and the empowerment and life skill set that NFTY provides for our teens is priceless. How much so? Please watch this powerful video made by a NFTY teen who was another regional gathering over the same week. There is just one word... Inspiring!